Return to Reviews menu
Review: China - A Television Marathon

Gerry Fitzpatrick

5 June 2007

Paul Merton In China (Ch5) British Entrepreneurs in China (CH4) The Long March (Ch5) Mao’s Bloody Revolution (Ch5)

There is a British ex-Stalinist somewhere feeling rather pleased than usual with himself. His identity and pedestrian ideas have long since been run over, but he could be seen on television about fifteen years ago regularly telling us how impressed he was with the new Asian rising tiger (not so hidden) exploitation economies. Now, he simply likes to brag about how many recordable DVD players he has.  And he would have needed all of them to record the amount of TV programmes about modern China on the box this week. Each had their own distinctive way of looking at the subject.

1. The Mondo Movie Approach

To option the mondo approach to a serious subject is sometimes easier in the media than you might expect simply because in certain situations, the absurdity does not need to be conjured up.  All that is needed is a film crew and someone to look and sound nonplussed. That is what happened when Paul Merton, a British Comedian, (as he himself kept trying to tell the Chinese) took the tour of a model communist town somewhere in China. In this, the  first programme of the series, the highlight was when Merton had just infuriated a visiting group of Gucci clad, communist party bosses, his voice then could be heard on the commentary saying ‘people come here from a communist state, to see what a communist town looks like….’ 

And what the model communist town did look like was of course Le Corbusier’s City of Tomorrow of 1927, faithfully reproduced in all its concrete banality, with lots of blank green meaningless space, into which had been placed Gerry Andersen style roads and roundabouts. These carried no traffic for the simple reason what people there were didn’t have cars or any other form of transport by the look of things. There was also something odd about the usual clutch of Tower blocks. For a start they had been recently been re-painted in their original 1950s nursery colours.

The people ‘living’ there only added to the general sense of eeriness and gave the distinct impression that having no place to go, they had arrived and decided to squat in this abandoned movie set and then been allowed to stay on as caretakers.  And that could only have been how the rather grim architectural school nerds who planned this monstrosity could have seen prospective tenants. But we shouldn’t be too hard on them, they probably thought they were doing their best; after all, ideas have to come from somewhere – even for this gerrybuilt nowhere.

Confronted as we were at one point by the huge Socialist Realist portraits of Marx, Stalin and Lenin you half expected to hear on the sound track as the CCP bosses bus drove away – not the International, but the more appropriate ‘Going Back to Funky Town’. But it would be wrong not to admit that this form of Chinese communism could also be a comic opera.

Switch channels to English Entrepreneurs in China on Ch4 and there was a real life Don Pasquale ‘eating drinking and wenching’ as the commentary put it. This was another CCP party boss, now a new factory owner, living on the few hundred thousand that an Englishman was kind enough to give him in the hope of receiving something in return, namely flat-pack kitchens made by a large number of highly under-paid workers. They eventually made a deal, as did all the other rather testy British entrepreneurs in this show. Not one of them thanked the camera crew for giving them that added touch of gravitas, which had enabled them to board this particular gravy train. After this serious business break it was back to cooking-as-usual. After all aren’t Brits abroad expected to do the cultural cringe in front of unspeakable animal parts as were offered up to Paul Merton and will be offered up to who knows how many new British entrepreneurs in China in the future? 

2. The My View Is ‘History’ Approach

In Mao’s Bloody Revolution (Ch5) we are treated to Philip Short’s view of Mao and the communist party which, when boiled down, turned out to be a problem not for the Chinese but for the liberal conscience of the presenter. This style was pioneered by the British liberal commentator Anthony Sampson who presented a famous series about Africa in the 1980s in terms of what he alone felt had been the problems and the errors that the Africans had made. There was little commentary given by Africans.  What Sampson’s account amounted to was a very sketchy assessment of the failed ambitions of nationalist leaders. Short’s approach is similar to this but more simplistic – there was one party in the end – The Communist Party it had one leader – Mao and up to 1976 everything in China depended on him.   That in its self could have been interesting, but it wasn’t – it was very dull – mainly due to the tone, which was one of low grade moralising. The tone also succeeded in giving the added impression of Short holding back the worst to protect to our gentle western natures. 

There was also an inordinate amount of time spent on Mao’s health.  It was undoubtedly the case that Mao was certain to live longer than his compatriots, simply because he had some of the best doctors in China, if not the world. This suggested that by the end of Mao’s life his health regime was the regime. So when Short simply announces the death of Chou en Lai from cancer the effect is rather strange as we expect more to have been said about the illness. 

After Mao’s death, whatever life there was in this documentary also dies and we get no sense of the extraordinary events that followed. For example, it presented the standard western undergraduate account of Madam Mao who fell from power because ‘she was unpopular’. We hear nothing of why this had been so. 

Perhaps the only thing good about this programme was that the researchers had unearthed some early film from the late 1920s of the CCP unseen in the west. This yearned for a proper context – which was the context of communism itself, as the Third International debated China. The issue of what was to be done in China was what established Stalinists as Stalinists and Trotskyists as Trotskyists and led to a permanent split in the international communist movement. 

Watching this account there was no indication that the survival and character of Chinese Communist Party was dependent on the outcome of that confrontation. Without this important context the future existence of Chinese Communist Party – as a Stalinist party – had no meaning. Hence when Short describes the Stalin-Hitler Pact as being seen as ‘something of a surprise in China’, it gives a false impression, as the policy of uniting and fighting with the far right was originated by Stalin in China. The Mao-Chiang Kai Sheik pact of 1936 was in fact the second such Stalin inspired pact – which not surprisingly was just as disastrous as the first of 1927 – both together caused the deaths of thousands of CCP members and revolutionary workers. 

3. The Let the Researchers Tell the Story Approach

By far the best of the season was the programme on the Long March (Ch5) this was in the tradition of ground braking programmes like the World at War, where well researched material is gathered and is presented without a moralising commentary. It clearly indicated that the extent of the defeat before the Long March (Chang taking advantage of his ‘unity’ pact with the CCP once again). It largely gave good factual commentary on how the composition of the Red Army changed from workers and peasants to simply peasants and then finally emerged as a much smaller peasant guerrilla army. This gave a much clearer indication what was to politically materialize after 1949. 

4. The Witness Faces the Truth Approach 

However, there was one programme that would have completed the set of approaches and that was the confessional as truth approach. This was shown nearly ten years ago and took a group of Cultural Revolutionaries back and through their time as young CCP militants. It was extremely memorable as these young people – who were also student intellectuals retraced their steps both psychically and mentally. It showed how the retreat from the city left them isolated and vulnerable and how attempting to live like peasants instilled a strong sense of guilt, which could only be assuaged by them returning to the cities as new Cultural Revolutionaries. In fact this was The Long March all over again. Only this time Mao used these would-be-peasant revolutionaries against his own party. By the middle of the 1960s the majority of CCP leadership had decided that they needed a change of economic policy to avoid being overthrown by the starving peasants. The problem was successfully avoided by Mao, who trained his faction in the countryside and then let them loose on the urban based opposition. All this could be claimed to have been done ‘on behalf of the peasants’. But these harrowing accounts of fanaticism, torture and execution by Cultural Revolutionaries were delivered by the participants in their own words. As the perpetrators, they had survived and had lived to tell the tale. And they told it with true remorse. 


Return to top of page